Last month, as the tech industry was buzzing about ChatGPT, the Defense Department’s research arm released an AI announcement of its own: An AI bot had managed to flew an F-16 fighter jet in the skies over southern California.

The news received relatively little attention, but it revealed an overlooked truth: The race to develop the next generation of AI is not just between tech companies like Microsoft and Google, but also between nations, which are working hard to nurture and develop their own technology.

An international competition on artificial intelligence technology is taking place at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China, and some experts said they fear the stakes are high.

“If the democratic side is not ahead of the curve on technology and the authoritarians are ahead of the curve, we put the entirety of democracy and human rights at risk,” said Eileen Donahoe, former US ambassador to the United States Human Rights Council. the UN and now executive director. from the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University.

AI has become increasingly entwined with US geopolitical strategy, even as chatbots, digital artwork and other consumer uses grab headlines. At stake are a number of tools that countries hope to use in a fight for global supremacy, according to current and former US government officials and outside analysts.

And it’s not just about military weapons like autonomous fighter jets. Some of the same advances that drive ChatGPT may be useful for geopolitical tools as varied as propaganda machines, new types of cyber attacks and «synthetic biology” which could be important for economic growth.

“Within the technical community and some parts of the policy community, this race has been going on for quite some time,” said Jason Matheny, chief executive of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit organization that provides research assistance to the US government. .us

“But what’s different now,” he added, “is that this is a talking point among the general public. Now there are millions of people who have interacted with a great language model,” specifically, ChatGPT and its cousin in Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

On the surface, chatbots may not have much in common with autonomous weapons, but they are based on similar ideas. AI technology is made up of a number of separate advances being developed in parallel, including new microchips and a new computer architecture called “transformer” that Google engineers developed. The «T» in ChatGPT stands for transformer.

One casualty so far is the sharing of technology across borders, similar to the way the internet has splintered into competing factions. Regulators in China have told Chinese companies not to offer access to ChatGPT services, Nikkei Asia reported last month, and the Biden administration has tight controls on the export of AI-related technologies to China.

From the Chinese perspective, the competition has resulted in a «decoupling» that hurts both countries but China even more, according to a report earlier this year from elite Peking University academics. The report later went offline, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. reported.

But in response to US export controls, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized the goal of technological self-sufficiency.

AI dominance does not necessarily mean winner take all. China does more with facial recognition technology than other countries, using it as a way of controlbut the censorship can hold it in the area of ​​large language models.

Matheny said that for the US to maintain an advantage, it must take into account several essential components: microchip computing power, vast amounts of data, advanced algorithms and talented engineers.

“Each of these is a kind of strategic resource,” he said. «There’s not an endless supply of people who have the expertise to build these great AI models.»

To make the race even tougher, the largest source of advanced chips is taiwanthe island that China claims as its own.

«It’s an inconvenient geographic feature that one of the most important parts of the AI ​​supply chain is also one of the most geopolitically tricky places, 100 miles from mainland China,» Matheny said.

Both the US and China have committed vast resources to AI development. The Department of Defense is spent $1.5 billion over five years in AI, and last year Congress aggregate another $200 million. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which tested the F-16 jet, separately said it was spent billions of dollars. China’s spending is less clear, but estimates are in the trillions of dollars.

In the private sector, the US and China are No. 1 and No. 2 in total private investment in AI, with US investment three times that of China, according to a 2022 report from Stanford University.

“It’s not just about what AI invents. It’s about who gets it done first,» said Christopher Kirchhoff, a former director of strategic planning at the National Security Council who helped run the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley. officein an email.

Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration’s national security adviser, has underscored how important AI capabilities are in the eyes of the White House. In what he called a strategic shift, Sullivan said in a speech last year that it was no longer enough for the US to be ahead of other nations in AI, but «had to maintain as much of an advantage as possible.»

The competition has most of the makings of a new arms race, analysts said, with all the scary scenarios, big budgets and international maneuvering that the phrase implies.

Ask for a de-escalation, and even one treaty – are growing stronger.

“This is Cold War logic all over again,” said Wendell Wallach, co-director of an AI program at the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs.

“Are we escalating tensions between us and China to the point of putting ourselves in a trap?” she asked.

Last month, the Dutch and South Korean governments co-sponsored what they said was the first world summit on «responsible» applications of AI in warfare, and more than 50 participating countries, including the US and China backed up to not binding statement on “the need to prioritize the responsible use of AI on the political agenda”.

Also at the summit, the Biden administration proposed a set of ideas to keep AI weapons in check, such as a proposal that deadly weapons be «capable of disabling if they display unintended behavior.»

A week later, Costa Rica hosted a regional event conference on the same subject, which shows how widespread the concerns are.

AI is now so involved in international affairs that it has become a fixation of late for Henry Kissinger, the 99-year-old former Secretary of State. in an event last year, he asked the US and China to start negotiating limits of some kind, because without them, he saying«It’s just a mad dash for some catastrophe.»

Countries other than the US and China seem to believe that if they are not competitive in AI, their security will be at risk.

«Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world,» Russian President Vladimir Putin said. told a group of students in 2017. The following year, Russia said it was testing a semi-autonomous tank in Syria, though got bad reviewsand in the Ukraine, both the Ukrainians and the Russians are looking into autonomous drone technology, Wired magazine reported.

ChatGPT has shown how easy it can be for a country to create large-scale persuasive propaganda and send it abroad, potentially escalating a conflict, said Joe Wang, senior director of foreign policy at the nonprofit Special Competitive Studies Project. created by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to «strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness.»

And the potential for other applications is not yet clear.

“We are at the beginning of the beginning, in terms of a new era of not just strategic competition, but how a new technology is changing the landscape of literally everything,” said Wang, a former State Department and National Security Council official. .